I was unhappy with my life. I was strolling on the winding and narrow streets of the small and charming village located at the foot of the mountain where sits the monastery when I passed by a bakery. The smell of freshly baked bread was irresistible. I sat at a table and ordered a sandwich with butter, honey, cinnamon and a generous slice of cheese. To go with it, a cup of coffee. At this moment, Loureiro, the elegant shoemaker came through the door. When he saw me, he cracked a sincere smile and came to me with open arms. After a strong hug, I asked if it was the smell of the bread or just chance that had attracted him there. He looked at me as one looks at a child and said: “There is no such thing as chance.” I said I had even thought about stopping by his shop, but I did not want to get in his way in mid-afternoon, while he was working. Well-known in the city for having unusual working hours, he said: “I called it a day. I came to talk to you.” I laughed and said he had no way to know I would be there. I myself would not have imagined it five minutes ago. Loureiro shrugged, as if indicating that was obvious, and said: “I also did not know, at least until I got here and found distress marked on your face. Then I understood.” I lowered my eyes and silently gave thanks.
Loureiro also ordered a cup of coffee. Then I told him I felt bitter because the Order had become the target of a smear campaign on a well-known social network on the internet. Worse, it had all begun when an old friend from the university came to visit me at the monastery. I told him about the lies and absurd conclusions that were published. I gave a short summary for the good cobbler who responded with a loud laugh. I told him I saw no reason for laughing, because it was serious. He looked at me with compassion and said: “No, it is not serious. It would be if it were based on truth, in which case all the concepts of the Order would have to be reviewed. But no. A lie, even though it may scratch the surface in some cases, does not have the power to reach the essence. The lie is the weapon of those who are weak, desperate, lost. Nothing that may stain the beautiful trajectory of the Monks of the Mountain.” I added that the slander had reached a huge audience, and had generated a number of similarly defamatory comments. I was going to suggest that the Order sue all these people. Loureiro shook his head in disagreement and said: “I doubt the Old Man will engage in a lawsuit and go to court.” I asked him why the Old Man would not do that. The shoemaker answered: “The Old Man is not only the oldest monk of the monastery, he knows the invisible side of things. The Old Man knows that a lawsuit will only nourish the dense feelings around the issue while the suit lasts, and will aggrandize the offender who, for sure, is an unhappy man, tormented by his own shadows. Sooner or later, the lie will be consumed in its own fire and will unmask the liar. One day he will realize that; shame will be his sentence.” I reasoned that that could take long, and asked for his advice. He furrowed his brow and said, gravely: “Patience, mercy and forgiveness. Every offender carries inside himself much suffering and conflict, which is reflected in his clumsy behavior.” I asked if not even a retraction was important. Loureiro said: “I see no need; the more a lie is absurd, the less it is sustainable. Similarly, but in a different form, it nourishes the shadows of the offender, and have no doubt, he is eager for you to fight with the weapons he offered. That is the game he knows how to play, it is the way for him to feel comfortable and to rebut, pumping fuel to this folly.” He looked at me in the eyes and said: “Do not play according to these rules. Evil only exists because it ignores virtue.” He paused briefly and added: “Take the battle out from the dark. Offer the enemy the light he does not know.”
We spoke a little more and then I had to say goodbye, because I had to catch my ride back to the monastery. I left the shop with an odd feeling of repose. However, I was sure Loureiro had not grasped the seriousness of the problem.
When I arrived at the monastery, I found it up in arms. Many monks felt offended and discussed how they should respond. Everyone was waiting for the Old Man, who was supposed to arrive back from a trip that evening. When he arrived, many monks surrounded him to report what had happened, and asked him to take the harsh measures the case required. The Old Man looked at them with composure and said: “I am hungry and sleepy. Tomorrow, with a fresh mind, we will be in better condition to decide.” A disciple mentioned the dangers of the internet, and how modernity brought along so many harmful things. The Old Man pondered, sweetly as usual: “Progress follows the evolution of humankind. It is a blessing. However, there will always be those who will make ill use of a good thing. We must pay heed in fighting evil, tend to the poor souls and encourage the advancements.” He looked at the faces of all, and added: “It is not because we have corrupt congress representatives that we will extinguish democracy; malicious judges cannot serve as motivation to end the rule of law. Similarly, a scissor that is useful for tailors should not be banned because someone used it as a weapon to hurt another.”
He signaled me to help carry his suitcase to his room. When we got to the door, I asked if he was not concerned with what had happened. The Old Man arched his lips in a brief smile and said: “Neither the monastery nor the Order will be destroyed tonight.” I wanted to know if he would be able to sleep at all, because of the problem he would have to face. He was emphatic: “Whatever decision we make will be as effective tonight as it will be tomorrow morning. Rest assured, anxiety only gets in the way if we allow that. Soon we won’t even remember such this event. Have a good night’s sleep.” Then we retired to our rooms.
When everyone had arrived for breakfast, following the morning meditation, they found the Old Man already in the refectory. His face exuded his typical composure; his eyes overflowed compassion and his lips revealed an almost imperceptible smile, as if he was entranced with the serious conflict that had emerged. He asked who would like to talk; and many raised their hands. He saw that everyone who wished spoke without being interrupted, so that the flow of reasoning was not broken. He made a request: “Present your reasons in a clear, quiet way; do not be aggressive against anyone. I am interested in the facts only, not in convicting anyone.” I realized how difficult it was for people to stick to the facts, without accusing other people or demand retaliation. Many spoke, each one presenting their reasons. One after the other, I thought they all presented good reasons to demand amends from the offender. Once the speakers were done, the Old Man said: “I agree that all evil should be firmly fought against. However, the way one does that makes all the difference. Each situation requires a particular way to dealt with it. We cannot forget what side we are on. Depending on our reaction we may nourish either the shadows or the light, and whatever we nourish will be reflected on us. First and foremost, we must decide if we will fight evil with evil or if we will illuminate darkness.” No word of dissent was heard. Some monks lowered their eyes.
“The choice we have to make seems obvious to me. Hence, we must decide what tools of light we will use.” He paused and waited for anyone to make any suggestion, but none did. So, he continued: “Then I suggest silence and work. You know that recently a camp was set up in the outskirts of a city a few hours away, with refugees from Africa who came to escape from hunger and civil war in their country. Some of us will work hard providing humanitarian aid to these bereft people. The others will continue with the many chores of the monastery. There is plenty of work for all. We must clean our minds of ill thoughts, and, particularly, we must gauge the conflict in its precise dimensions. Working with good deeds is excellent for that,” explained the Old Man. Immediately, a hubbub ensued. Some monks and disciples spoke up, saying that something should be done against the offender, or else he could feel encouraged to keep up the slander. I agreed with them.
The Old Man smiled and said: “For some people, it is easier to destroy than to construct. They believe that if they deconstruct the good image of others, they will feel better with theirs. This pleasure is transient, because it is triggered by the shadows themselves, which, soon enough, will be hungry once again, and will cause more pain and suffering to the poor souls. Hence, in a way, it is interesting to note that the shadows, sometimes, are of good service to the light, by causing this indisposition. They can continue to nourish them or, when they reach a minimum level of awareness, something that sooner or later will happen, they will realize they are imprisoned in a cycle of endless repetitions with similar situations and unpleasant emotions. So, little by little, they can transform their behavioral pattern to reach better results. One day, everyone realizes their mistakes.”
One of the monks said that we could not wait for this day. He suggested a lawsuit, not only to silence the offender, but as moral reparation for the Order. The Old Man furrowed his brow and said: “Moral reparation? What do you mean? My moral has not been stained at all. I would have never allowed that. This is a personal decision. I know all I have done. This is enough. One does not fight a liar like he was a murderer.” He paused briefly and completed his reasoning: “Moreover, that would be feeding with shadows the starving darkness that assails the offender. I am not interested in engaging in a fight with these weapons. My battlefield is different. We shall fight with the tools of silence of those who know themselves and by doing work that fosters evolution.”
It was impossible not to recall the conversation I had had with Loureiro in the bakery. Different routes for the same destination.
Even though against the will of many in the monastery, we agreed with the Old Man’s suggestion of “taking care of us, for the time being”, and respond with silence and work.
In time, the lies petered out. Some people who liked the Order spontaneously started a countermovement. The Old Man was moved and thanked them, but said that would not be necessary. Vexed, the offender made new accusations that were so ludicrous they only served to debase the previous ones. On the other hand, humanitarian work, in addition to soothing the soul, showed how small those slanders were in face of the beauty of life. Silence, in turn, was a powerful ally to meditation and reflection to strengthen the truths of each one to whom they matter, that is, themselves.
Much time passed and no one else was interested in commenting on the case, which was now forgotten in a drawer of memory. That fact had been adjusted to its precise, fair measure, insignificance, leaving a valuable lesson.
However, I could not have imagined that the lesson wasn’t over until we received a visitor. That old friend of mine from the university, who started the smear campaign, went back to the monastery.
Despite the uneasiness of all, he asked to speak to the Old Man. A monk who had been a wrestler in his youth got closer, concerned. The Old Man reproached him with a gaze, making him retreat. The Old Man, as if waiting for this unlikely meeting, cracked a beautiful smile to the visitor and, without a word, gave him a sincere hug. The man cried until he sobbed. When he was able to speak, he apologized. Then he turned to all the monks around and apologized once more. He was really contrite.
Shaken, he confessed being envious when he first visited the monastery. He said he had driven his life towards the most common desires of the ego, and had left aside the needs of the soul. The result was a huge void and a sense of helplessness he could not explain. He was yearning for the peace and joy he had found there, but he knew they were distant from him. As he could not decode his feelings, he had a catastrophic reaction. He decided to destroy all that pointed to his mistakes. Now he acknowledged that.
The Old Man led everyone to the refectory, for tea, coffee and cake. Then, he spoke to the man: “Yours is a beautiful trajectory.” Seeing the puzzled faces, he added: “The most beautiful stories are those about overcoming adversities. I like people who face the darkness of their own being and decide to illuminate it rather than nourish darkness. This is transformation, this is what makes life worth living. This, in essence, is evolution.”
The man made a generous donation to the Order to compensate the nuisance he had caused. The Old Man, in his sweet voice, explained: “I thank you, but we do not take donations. We live off from the artisanal production of chocolate by our monks. We have enough.” The man said he knew how appreciated our chocolate was, and that he would choose an orphanage or an asylum to make a donation. The Old Man nodded and said: “That is an excellent idea. Feel free to choose one. There are many good institutions that need financial help to operate. However, bear in mind that any donation is an act of love, and must be rooted in the heart.” The man agreed, and made a request. He would like to join the Order, even if that meant renouncing all the material assets he had acquired in his life. He yearned for the peace and joy he saw in the monks.
The Old Man arched his lips in a mild smile and said: “Why would you renounce your material goods? Money is a wonderful, sacred tool, as long as properly used for evolution. There is no problem with money, the problem lies on how we relate to it. We often blame others when the fault lies in ourselves. With money it is no different.” He paused briefly and resumed talking: “Peace and joy are not privileges of monastic life. Here you will find only the worse, the most rebellious, those who require more care.” Everyone laughed heartily, but they knew that this was partially true. Then he continued: “Joy and peace are achievements anyone can have, just like other virtues. You will find them everywhere, just because they are dormant within yourself. Either you will find them inside yourself or you won’t be able to have them.” He paused once again, and then added: “As for you, I honestly don’t see the need for retiring to a monastery.”
The man claimed he did not know what to do to find what he was looking for. The Old Man was didactic: “In fact, you have started this process when you realized you were being advised by shadows and decided to illuminate them. This is the big battle of life and part of the fundamental process of self-knowledge that will allow the transformations necessary to improve one’s being and achievements. By acknowledging mistakes, correcting them and becoming firmly committed not to make them again, you have shown how much you have advanced. This is a beautiful achievement!” He sipped his tea and added: “The Path revealed itself to you. You just have to keep on it.”
With teary eyes, the man thanked the Old Man, who corrected: “It is us who must thank you for providing valuable lessons and a magic moment like this one. They hugged. The monk said his farewell: “Came back whenever your heart yearns for fresh coffee and a good conversation. Your presence illuminates this house.” Moved, my friend left. There was a bright shine is his eyes. A gentle breeze blew in the monastery, bringing a pleasant sense of peace.
Some days later I went to visit Loureiro in his shop and told him how the story that I had started telling him in the bakery had unfolded. The good craftsman made a remark about the conflict: “Can you realize there were no losers? This happens whenever we take the battle to the side of light.” I said I had been impressed with the behavior of my colleague and the outcome of the case. The shoemaker commented: “The Greeks tell of an inscription on the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo, at Delphi, ‘know thyself’. It has oriented Socratic philosophy to this date. This was the important step your colleague took.” And added: “This is the beginning of the actual good fight, the one we fight within ourselves.”
Kindly translated by Carlos André Oighenstein.